The BBCSSO Give Double Delight at the Proms

04/08/2019

BBC PROMS 19 and 20: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Thomas Dausgaard (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 2.8.2019 & 3.8.2019 (CS)

Pekka Kuusisto (c) BBC/Chris Christodoulou

2 August
Alexander Melnikov (piano)
R. StraussAlso sprach Zarathustra Op.30
Schumann – Piano Concerto in A minor Op.54
Sir James MacMillanThe Confession of Isobel Gowdie

3 August
Pekka Kuusisto (violin), Taito Hoffrén (singer), Ilona Korhonen (singer), Minna-Liisa Tammela (singer), Vilma Timonen (kantele), Timo Alakotila (harmonium)
Sibelius – Violin Concerto in D minor Op.47 (Henry Wood Novelties: UK premiere, 1907); Symphony No.5 in E flat major (original version, 1915) UK Premiere

If I were a young instrumentalist, studying at one of the UK’s music conservatoires and hoping to have a career as an orchestral musician, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra is just the sort of ensemble that I would want to join.  The players arrived on the Royal Albert Hall stage for the first two of the four Promenade concerts that the orchestra will perform this season with a spring in their collective step and smiles all round.  They looked genuinely excited to be there and in keen anticipation of some superb, uplifting shared music-making.  They welcomed their leader, Laura Samuel, and their Chief Conductor, Thomas Dausgaard, warmly.  During the ensuing concerts, the musicians’ deep commitment, joy and friendship were unwaveringly in evidence.  Samuel leads with a confidence which is simultaneously unassuming and reassuring, and plays with a passionate energy which transmits to and lifts the entire ensemble.  Relaxed, urbane and open-hearted, Dausgaard seems to have time for, and communicate with, each individual player personally.  The care that the Danish conductor took on both evenings to welcome, support and collaborate with the orchestra’s guest soloists was equalled by his players’ warm embrace of their musical partners for each concert, and resulted in performances which were fresh, imaginative and compelling.  At the end of Prom 19, having seared their way through the burning one-note crescendo that closes Sir James MacMillan’s The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, the members of the brass section turned to one another and vigorously shook hands.  One is certain: for the BBCSSO, it really is all about the music.

What more gripping way to announce their arrival at the 2019 Proms than with a rumble, almost out of human hearing, from contrabassoon, organ and bass drum, which swelled as if from the bowels of the earth, and a thrice-repeated trumpet fanfare that strove to release itself from tight knots of tension and found liberation in thunderous blaze of C major freedom – a ‘cosmic sunrise’, indeed?  Each note of the three-note trumpet motif at the start of Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra was true and sure, setting the tone for a performance marked by precise control of the intense arguments between nature and man which Strauss’s score embodies, as Dausgaard balanced careful attention to detail with an astute sense of Strauss’s broad formal arcs.  The BBCSSO strings produced a full Straussian sheen, while the numerous complex divisi passages were eloquent and tender, none more so than in ‘Von den Hinterland’ (Of the Backworldsmen) where the strings were well-balanced against the RAH organ, played by Richard Hills.

Dausgaard relished the score’s sudden changes of colour and texture: there was a beautiful transparency at the start of ‘Von der großen Sehnsucht’ (Of the Great Longing), when the woodwind assume the debate; in ‘Von der Wissenschaft’ (Of Science) the mysteries of the low divided strings and subsequent imitative busyness opened into a gleaming illumination of harp and flutes in thirds.  Energy was conjured in the blink of an eye from stillness, and the agility of the lower strings – always light on their feet – provided helpful propulsion in those extended developments in which the aspiring searches for resolution seem destined to be denied.  In ‘Das Graslied’ the ‘song of the grave’ was beautifully played by the solo and divided cellos, while Samuel waltzed dreamily in ‘Das Tanzlied’ (The Dance Song), the solo violin’s double-stopped thirds slippery as silk, until Dausgaard found a more earthy vigour in the rhythmic spring and the floating melody became a robust song.  As if the music was spent by its intense struggles, the work’s famous harmonic question-mark faded into an exhausted silence.

After the interval, the BBCSSO were joined by pianist Alexander Melnikov in Schumann’s Piano Concerto.  I was less enamoured than I expected by Melnikov’s approach: overall there seemed to be a lack of tenderness or the degree of spaciousness that would allow the Concerto’s sehnsucht to be gently articulated – it all felt a little too heavy and headlong.  The Allegro affetuoso opened with a plummeting cascade of chords which seemed taut and tense rather than an unstoppable overflowing of emotion.  In the Animato section the breakneck pace made the tumbling triplets a dizzying stream of sound and I couldn’t sense the ebb and flow, the music’s breathing; in the Andante espressivo the clarinet gave an object lesson in tender melodising.  Moreover, Melnikov didn’t let the orchestral episodes settle: the restatement of the opening chords arrived with a rather abrupt thump, and when the woodwind later reprised the main theme – based on Clara Schumann’s name – the pianist’s hasty entry almost cut off their resolving cadence which is followed by a brief notated silence.  In the Intermezzo Melnikov did not seem very interested in the four-note scalic motif, which was given little ‘character’, and again the fast tempo precluded much in the way of expressive rubato.  Then, just when I was expecting another sprint to the finish, the concluding Allegro Vivace was more drunken swagger than a dancing swirl; the heaviness deprived the two-against-three rhythms of their propulsive lightness and joy.

Dausgaard and the BBCSSO were kept on their toes, with Dausgaard following his soloist with unwavering attentiveness; indeed, he seemed to spend much of the Concerto turning to face Melnikov and his baton must have been out of view to many players at times, but the BBCSSO played with a light, bright sound and did manage to convey some of the work’s playfulness.  Melnikov’s encore, Träumerei, finally showed us the sensitivity of Schumann’s pianism and the depth of his own expressivity.

The BBCSSO’s performance of Sir James MacMillan’s The Confession of Isobel Gowdie at the 1990 Proms announced the then 31-year-old Scot’s arrival on the international musical stage.  Given at that time a ‘thunderous, ecstatic welcome’ that one critic described as ‘unprecedented’ for a new work at the Proms, thirty years later the work has lost none of its astonishing power to thrill and absorb its audience.  In the preface to the score, MacMillan reminds us that between 1560 and 1707 as many as 4500 Scots lost their lives because their contemporaries believed they were witches.  Isobel Gowdie was a cottar’s wife living in the outlying areas of Auldearn, a small town located between Inverness and Elgin in the north-east of Scotland.  In early 1662 she made four ‘confessions’ in which she claimed, among other things, to have been part of a coven that served the devil, conversed with the fairy king and queen, and ploughed a field with a yoke of frogs.  There is no extant legal documentation of her case, and her final fate remains ambiguous though it is thought that she was killed by strangulation and then burned at the stake.

The Confessions of Isobel Gowdie is, MacMillan has said, the requiem that Gowdie never had.  He doesn’t ‘depict’ specific events in musical terms, but there is some pictorialism – violin shrieks and keening, thunderous orchestral judgements – and Dausgaard, as in the Strauss, created a strong sense of narrative.  There was a tremendous vibrancy about the BBCSSO’s sound and rhythms which created immediacy, as if an oral tale was unfolding before us.  The rhythmic complexities were precision-perfect – bravo to the BBCSSO’s percussionists and brass-players Percussionists – which, together with MacMillan’s acidic sonorities, created a knife-edge tension at times, particularly in the angular Stravinskian ‘fantasie’ episode, and towards the close when the orchestral tumult is silenced with brutal suddenness.  It wasn’t all fracas and fulmination though: the opening pulsated delicately while the strings’ long lament was eloquently played.  But, the final roar was surely heard on the other side of town!

Thomas Dausgaard, BBCSSO and Soloists (c) BBC/Chris Christodoulou

In 1990, The Confessions of Isobel Gowdie was sandwiched in-between a Beethoven symphony and the Sibelius Violin Concerto.  This time round we had to wait until the following evening to hear the latter, performed by Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto.  Kuusisto’s performance of the Tchaikovsky Concerto at his Proms debut in 2016 is one of my all-time favourite Proms memories: who will ever forget the impromptu Prommers Chorus joining him in a rousing rendition of the Finnish folk-song ‘My Darling is So Beautiful’?  I have heard Kuusisto perform the Sibelius Concerto before, most recently at Cadogan Hall in 2017 but being in the Royal Albert Hall before a capacity audience seems to fire Kuusisto’s imagination and inspiration in all sorts of creative and expressive ways, so I’d been excited about this concert since this season’s programme was published.

In the event, Thomas Dausgaard and some of Kuusisto’s fellow Finns also had much to contribute to the ‘creativity’ of the event.  Before the performance, and in a programme article, Dausgaard explained that his interest in a possible connection between Sibelius’s musical language and Finnish folk music (something that the composer denied) had led him, via Kuusisto, to a group of Finnish folk musicians, in particular Timo Alakotila, a composer, pianist and ‘living encyclopedia of Finnish/Swedish folk music and hymns’.  Alakotila identified musical counterparts among the latter for the characteristic themes and motifs from Sibelius’s music that Dausgaard sent him, and together they decided to create preludes to each of the works in tonight’s concert: ‘we would have a group of Finnish folk musicians providing a taste of the related folk music, then the orchestra would answer with what Sibelius had actually written.  Somewhere in between, Pekka would jump from playing Sibelius with the orchestra and improvising along with the folk musicians in fiddle style.’

And, that’s what we got, with the two ‘preludes’ leading segue into the Violin Concerto and the original version of the Fifth Symphony, as the folk musicians inconspicuously left the stage.  It was fascinating and uplifting to see such honest, joyful music-making – the image of three folk singers smiling and swaying as the BBCSSO echoed their own song with thematic excerpts from the Fifth Symphony will stay with me for a long time.  Taito Hoffrén, Ilona Korhonen and Minna-Liisa Tammela were lightly amplified, and accompanied by Vilma Timonen playing the harp-like kantele and Alakotila on harmonium.  Their fragments of melody, lullaby and vocal cries weaved around each other and over and through the orchestral textures in quasi-hypnotic fashion, as one thought ‘Of course!’ with every musical match or echo, ‘Of course Sibelius’s music is influenced by the music of his native land, just as surely as it is charged with Finnish myths, literature and landscape, whether he knew it or not.’

I’m not so sure that the Concerto and Symphony themselves benefitted being elided to preceding preludes; the astonishing impact of the opening of the Concerto in particular, where the magic of the journey from silence, through the stillness of the violins’ icy, shimmering oscillations to the soloist’s simple, soulful song, seemed lost.  And, initially at least, I found the presence of the large harmonium at the front of the stage, a little distracting (though it would not necessarily have been so from other vantage points), especially as Kuusisto seemed to step back and embed himself within the orchestra – the position from which he had performed during the prelude.

But, such things were quickly forgotten.  Kuusisto played that opening theme as gently and lovingly as his compatriots had sung, with an equally relaxed immersion in the music.  In fact, there was a prevailing freedom about the Allegro moderato, felt in the rhythmic shape of individual phrases and in the relationships between different section and in the elisions between them.  This was a very individual reading: Kuusisto wasn’t afraid to push some phrases or to hold back and linger elsewhere; to emphasise a chordal dissonance or introduce some portamenti into leaps and movements between chords.  The cadenza, in particular, pressed forward, denying the music any Romantic self-indulgence.

This wasn’t the most pristine and polished Sibelius Concerto that I’ve heard but it was the most personal and incredibly persuasive.  The BBCSSO were equal partners in the endeavour and the orchestral tuttis were tremendously impassioned and exciting.  As on the preceding evening, Dausgaard was an incredibly supportive guide; his enjoyment of Kuusisto’s playing was writ large in the brightness of his eyes, the intensity of his encouragement, and the affection of his smile – particularly during the soloist’s G-string scaling theme at the opening of the Adagio di molto.  It was this slow movement during which Kuusisto seemed to have a mystical link to the musical ‘meaning’; if he was rapt, then so was the entire RAH, filled to the rafters, which I have seldom seen so intently focused and still.  If the Adagio was heavenly then the Allegro, ma non tanto brought us back down to earth in the best possible way, with a gutsy reading which throbbed with a folky robustness and the occasional splash of ‘rough’ realism.

During his career Sibelius withdrew or revised a substantial number of his works.  Admittedly, these were usually early works, though they include the Kullervo Symphony of 1891-92, an opera The Maiden in the Tower and two string quartets.  Then, there’s the Eighth Symphony, which the composer destroyed.  Sibelius’s Violin Concerto was introduced to UK audiences by Henry Wood, and this performance was one of the ‘Henry Wood Novelties’ that are being celebrated during this year’s season.  But, the BBCSSO’s performance of the composer’s Fifth Symphony also had a ‘novelty’ element for Dausgaard had elected to play not the familiar 1919 score, but the original 1915 version of the work.

How fascinating it was to hear a work which seemed both familiar and strange, though it’s clear that the later version was not so much a revision as a re-composition.  The opening horn calls are absent, and at the close there are not six isolated ‘hammer-blows of Thor’ but five chords linked together by the shimmering tremolando of wind and strings.  The swinging horn theme has a less climactic and epiphanic role.  The 1915 version seems ‘looser’, not just in terms of the development of the melodic material but also the integration of the rhythmic motifs and their underlying role in unifying the structure of the work.  It is also less ‘dark’: timpani, double bass and percussion are used more lightly.  Dausgaard and the BBCSSO played with enormous belief in the integrity of the work.

After that 2016 encore, it was not so much a question of would Kuusisto entertain us further, but of what kind of exploits would he get the Prommers involved in this time round.  The Concerto was followed by a mesmerising performance of the second of Sibelius’s Four Humoresques for Violin and Orchestra Op.89, in which improvisation, folk and classical worlds seemed truly fused.  Then, after the Symphony, Kuusisto and his colleagues returned to the RAH stage to give the Prommers a quick lesson in ‘humming and aahing’ – ‘If you want to enhance your singing put your hands on the back of the person standing next to you.  Only with permission!’ – so that we could join him and his band in a Karelian song (whose title means ‘absolutely nothing …’).  ‘I feel like I’ve been here before,’ said Kuusisto wryly.  I can’t wait for him to come back.

Claire Seymour

These two concerts were broadcast live on Radio 3 and are available for 28 days on iPlayer.  The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra return to the Proms on 13th August and 1st September.

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